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Cleveland higher ed presidents discuss student loneliness, workforce needs and affordability

Moderator Ken Schneck, CSU President Laura Bloomberg and Tri-C President Michael Baston speak at the City Club of Cleveland in early December 2023.
City Club of Cleveland
Moderator Ken Schneck, CSU President Laura Bloomberg and Tri-C President Michael Baston speak at the City Club of Cleveland on December 1, 2023.

The leaders of Cleveland State University and Cuyahoga Community College both gave their institutions a B+ when asked about their overall health, during a forum on higher education Friday at the City Club of Cleveland

CSU President Laura Bloomberg and Tri-C President Michael Baston both acknowledged the headwinds facing higher education: changing demographics and related declining enrollment, financial challenges, coupled with their desire to boost residents' access to a higher education degree to stimulate the economy. But they also trumpeted the strengths of their individual institutions.

For Baston, it was Tri-C's ability to connect people with two-year degrees and certificates to get jobs they want.

"I think that our specific focus on making sure that career exploration, connecting with business and industry, connecting with community-based organizations for those reasons and the ability of our institution to constantly evolve and be nimble and the level of commitment of the folks throughout our system," he said.

For Bloomberg, it was the strength of CSU's research and its broader impact on the community.

"The role of a university in a community is broad," she said. "And when I think about workforce (development), I also think about a well-educated citizenry. I think about the value of the research that we conducted, at CSU we are a very research-active institution... I don't know how many patents our faculty have achieved in the last several years, but it is many."

Baston acknowledged Tri-C will need to continue to reimagine syllabi and embed faculty in the "world of work," when looking at areas for improvement.

"That is why we're saying that our entrepreneurial work is important because we know that more and more, particularly young people don't necessarily want to work for someone, they want to work for themselves," he said.

Bloomberg said her institution needs to look at investing in improvements of things that aren't always front-of-mind - like outdated software systems - while contending with declining revenue from enrollment.

"And it's not very compelling to talk to a donor about, you know, helping us upgrade our 'PeopleSoft' system," she said.

Bloomberg and Baston were asked by moderator Ken Schneck about mental health challenges college students and staff face, specifically in the area of loneliness and isolation. Both said they've been actively working toward solutions in that realm. Bloomberg said CSU has developed the new division of "student belonging and success" to try to address those issues hollistically, while Baston said Tri-C has undertaken a "major redesign of the student experience," both in academic and nonacademic areas, with an eye toward making sure students feel like they're part of the broader community.

The two presidents said they are prioritizing affordability as public institutions, when asked about perceptions in the U.S. of college education being unaffordable. Baston said people need a variety of educational options, and said he felt Tri-C and CSU together offer good coverage, from certificates to bachelor's degrees to graduate degrees.

Bloomberg noted enrollment and opinions on the value of a college education often fluctuates with economic conditions.

"It's always been true that not everybody needs to go to college," she said. "What sociologists who study this know is that when unemployment is very, very low, when the unemployment rate is very, very low, the narrative about whether or not you need to go to college changes. And when employers aren't able to employ people, the narrative changes."

Both also affirmed their institutions' commitment to fostering diversity on their campuses despite the U.S. Supreme Court overturning race-conscious admission practices. Baston said he was also concerned about "legal strategies" - like the suit that led to that case - being used to erode hard-fought civil rights wins over the last century-plus.

"My concern is as a community college president, we are open-access institutions. We take the top 100%," he said, to laughter. "We meet students at their level of preparation and, you know, we are that place where diverse perspectives and mindsets are going to be engaged."

Case Western Reserve University President Eric Kaler had initially been scheduled to be a panelist at the event. The university in a statement this week provided the following explanation as to why he stepped down from the panel.

“President Kaler had looked forward to participating on a panel at the City Club with Presidents Baston and Bloomberg on the role of their respective institutions in driving regional economic development,” the university said in a statement. “As it turned out this was not the panel's focus for the December 1 forum, President Kaler felt it was inappropriate to participate in it.”

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.